New challenges for the fixers of Boeings 787

Written by New York Times | Updated: Aug 1 2013, 01:25am hrs
The thin plastic skin on Boeings 787 Dreamliner is an engineering marvel, a mix of carbon fibres and epoxy moulded into large barrel-shaped sections that are then baked at up to 350 degrees in giant ovens.

The recent fire on a 787 at Heathrow Airport in London provides the first test of how difficult and costly it will be to repair serious damage. Its happening at a pivotal moment for Boeing, which is eager to show that even significant damage to a carbon-composite plane like the 787 can be repaired as quickly and effectively as in the old aluminium models. Each day a jet remains grounded costs an airline tens of thousands of dollars.

Investigators say they believe that the cause of the fire, a pinched wire on an emergency transmitter, was fairly mundane. But the damage was anything but. The high temperatures weakened the supports in a 10-foot stretch at the top of the rear fuselage and seared the paint on the top of the skin, causing the most extensive damage yet to one of the new Dreamliners.

Aviation experts say Boeing will cut out the damaged areas and glue or, probably, bolt a large patch, made of overlapping panels of composite materials, onto the shiny new plane, which is less than a year old.

Boeing will also need to install new composite supports, and possibly some made of stronger titanium, to hold that mask in place and shore up the structural integrity of the plane, owned by Ethiopian Airlines.

Given how crucial the innovative jets are to Boeings future it expects to sell thousands of them in the coming decades "they will do anything at this point to show that that airplane is repairable, said Robert Mann, an aviation consultant in Port Washington, New York.